As Canada moves to reassume its position as a gentle giant and world leader by example, the Northwest Territories has an epic opportunity to, in turn, lead other jurisdictions within the country.
Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the last event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in Ottawa, where the final, 3,700-plus-page report was released. His speech produced another soundbite for the ages – “Reconciliation is not an indigenous issue, it is a Canadian issue” – and he noted that his commitment to implementation of the 94 calls to action in the TRC summary released months ago was already being actioned with the launch days earlier of a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
The devil is in the details and the Liberals will have to face all sorts of weather in 2016 as they try to deliver on their lofty election promise to enact all 94 points. Seven are classified under “education” (one even has sub-goals of its own), including closing the First Nations education gap within one generation, adequately funding First Nations students seeking a college or university education and developing culturally appropriate curricula. The intent is commendable but there is no way those goals can be achieved in a short time, and the route to get there will be difficult, expensive and a potential quagmire of problems.
Successful outcomes are essential for Trudeau in implementing the 94 recommendations. Simply throwing money at the the problems will beget nothing. Trudeau’s navigators are in luck, though. They need look no farther than the NWT for inspiration. The NWT government has been ahead of the entire process since 2012, when it made residential school teaching material mandatory in high school curricula. Students living in Canada’s North cannot graduate high school without taking a Grade 10 civics course that explores residential schools and the concept of reconciliation. Much of the material is delivered through stories from survivors, and teachers also receive training on how to teach the powerful and delicate subject matter.
Nunavut started using the curriculum at the same time as the NWT and six schools in the Yukon began delivering it last year; the rest to come on-board in the fall. Elected Speaker of the House by his MLA peers last Wednesday, Jackson Lafferty, then NWT education minister, was in Ontario in June urging the Kathleen Wynne Liberals to include similar material in schools in that province. He came away with an agreement-in-principle, days before even the TRC executive summary with those 94 recommendations was released. Ontario’s education ministry committed to look at the curriculum and explore options for that province.
Lafferty also brought his case to his fellow education ministers at a forum at the end of June in Yellowknife. He told them the curriculum should not be limited to Grade 10.
“My message to my colleagues across Canada – education ministers – will be residential school curriculum should be introduced from kindergarten to Grade 12 and be mandatory, such as we did in Grade 10,” he told the Journal in June. “Then, moving forward to post secondary, it should be included in the first year of teachers’ education programs.”
To this, we say “bravo.” If consultation is at the heart of reconciliation, the NWT should be in a lead role at the table as Canada charts its way forward, a course that can only help restore our international reputation and standing. The federal Liberals have nothing to lose and everything to gain by following their Ontario cousins in learning from the NWT, where half of the population is indigenous and more residential school survivors live, per capita, than anywhere in Canada.
lt will be important that the Liberals have the wisdom not to try to ‘reinvent the wheel,’ but rather look to what is available for them as resources across Canada and adopt and adapt the good works already being done. For more than a decade the NWT, for one, has been actively integrating indigenous languages and cultures into school curricula to make them locally relevant. Classroom materials are being developed as resources in multiple indigenous languages, including texts and story books. The number of indigenous student high school graduates is still not as high as the norms for southern populations but the numbers are better than anywhere else in Canada and success rates are growing. Whole communities are engaged in a support role and when an indigenous student makes it through university, the event is widely celebrated as a success for everyone. Great strides are being made and, given the momentum, the best is yet to come.
Trudeau should look to positive examples like those being set in the NWT, working together as a national community in a way that resonates in the hearts and minds of the more than 1.4 million self-identified indigenous Canadians.